August 2, 2019

Time to Wake Up 250: Looking Back – and Forward

As prepared for delivery

Mr./Madam President, for the 250th week in a row of Senate session, I rise – yet again – to call this chamber to wake up to the threat of climate change.

In April 2012, I delivered the first of these speeches; I began: “I know that many in Washington would prefer to ignore this issue, but nature keeps sending us messages – messages we ignore at our peril.” 

It was a cry of frustration – frustration that the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision had killed bipartisan work on climate – frustration that the fossil fuel industry’s death grip had tightened around this chamber – frustration that a Democratic administration had abandoned leadership on climate change.

Here I am, still at it, seven years on.  Some things have changed.  Some haven’t.

Let’s start with what hasn’t changed. 

First, the scientific certainty.  Scientists have understood that burning fossil fuels causes our planet to heat up since the days when Abraham Lincoln was riding around Washington D.C. in his top hat. 

[Chart 1 – Exxon 1982 climate report]

Nearly four decades ago, Exxon’s own scientists reported to Exxon management that there is “little doubt” that atmospheric CO2 concentrations were increasing due to fossil fuel burning.  They said back in 1982 that the resulting greenhouse effect “would warm the earth’s surface, causing changes in climate affecting atmospheric and ocean temperatures, rainfall patterns, soil moisture, and . . . potentially melting the polar ice caps.” 

[Chart 2 – Hurricane damage]

There was no legitimate debate over the science when I started in 2012; there is no legitimate debate over the science today.  Indeed, the science has only strengthened.  And with each passing year, we rely less on complicated climate models and more on straightforward, real-time measurement.  Today, we observe with our own eyes what recently was predicted: glacial collapse and retreat, sea level rise, arctic warming, and increasingly extreme weather.

Another constant since 2012 is the fossil fuel industry’s remorseless campaign (a) to block climate action (b) to do this while hiding its hands behind front groups. 

[Chart 3 – Web of denial]

I’ve delivered dozens of speeches about the dozens of climate denial front groups funded by Big Oil and the Koch brothers.  They set them up and set them loose to sow false doubt about climate science and to obstruct climate action here in Washington.  They’ve spent – at a minimum – hundreds of millions of dollars on this anti-climate campaign.  With that money, they’ve talked up ridiculous notions like carbon pollution is good for us because carbon is plant food, and taken out billboards comparing climate scientists to the Unabomber.  It’s false and ugly stuff, powered by hidden money.

Oil giants still spend huge amounts to infect corporate America’s lobbying with their obstruction message.  Influence Map reckons the biggest anti-climate lobbying force in Washington is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—a trade group that purports to represent the typical patriotic American business.  It should more properly be called the U.S. Chamber of Carbon.

[Chart 4 – Influence Map Rankings]

The vast majority of American companies are taking steps to reduce their carbon emissions.  They are signing all sorts of pledges in favor of climate action, carbon pricing, renewable energy, the Paris Agreement, and so on.  Yet Big Oil is puppeteering their top trade organization to block climate action. 

Why wouldn’t Big Oil go to all this trouble?  They’re defending a $650 billion per year subsidy in the United States alone, according to the International Monetary Fund.  But it’s still shameful.

That vast majority of American companies is a silent majority.  When I say silent, I mean they are not showing up in Congress to push back, to correct the record, or to seek climate legislation.  Corporate America was AWOL in 2012 and they are AWOL now.  Their silence was deafening then, and deafening still today.

So what has changed since that first speech seven plus years ago?  First of all, the economics of renewable energy changed – in a big way. 

In 2012, wind and solar weren’t cost-competitive with fossil fuels.  Storage and electric vehicles were nowhere.

[Chart 5 – Solar Cost Curve]

That year, the average cost of solar was over $200/megawatt hour.  Today, it’s a quarter of that. 

The cost of wind power is down, and offshore wind is emerging.

Battery storage now competes on price with gas-fired, peak-demand plants in many areas. 

Automakers are making more and more electric vehicles, driving cost down and performance up for consumers.

Even with that massive subsidy for fossil fuel, renewables are starting to win on price.

The other big thing that’s changed since 2012 is economists, central bankers, Wall Street bankers, real estate professionals, and asset managers recognizing the major risks climate change poses to the global economy. 

Back in 2012, these economic warnings – crash warnings – were uncommon.

[Chart 6 – Warnings]

Now, they’re coming from everywhere. 

Freddie Mac predicts that rising sea levels will prompt a crash in coastal property values greater than the housing crash that caused the 2008 financial crisis.

First Street has shown how sea level rise is already affecting coastal real estate values up and down the East Coast.  It found that rising seas have already resulted in $16 billion in lost property values in coastal homes from Maine to Mississippi.

Moody’s warns climate risk could trigger downgrades in coastal communities’ bond ratings.  Just last week, the mayor of Honolulu testified at the Senate Climate Committee’s first hearing that the credit ratings agencies are grilling him about this. 

BlackRock has estimated that some coastal communities face annual average losses of up to 15 percent of GDP from climate change by the end of the century.  Heads up, Florida.

Coastal property is not the only financial risk.  The Bank of England, Bank of France, Bank of Canada, San Francisco Fed, and European Central Bank – along with top-tier, peer-reviewed economic papers – are all warning of systemic economic risk – central banker-speak for something that poses a risk to the entire economy – from stranded fossil fuel assets: the “carbon asset bubble.”

[Chart 7 – RI Archipelago]

One other thing I’ve spent a lot of time on is oceans—the heating, the acidification, the lost and shifting fisheries, the collapsing coral and expanding dead zones, and of course the rising sea levels.  Our terrestrial species needs to pay a lot more attention to the seas, and there has been a real shift in those years.

Then you have Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, Citigroup, and more economists warning that the costs of climate change won’t be measured in the hundreds of billions or even trillions – but the tens of trillions of dollars.

Here I am, seven-plus years later, giving my 250th speech.  Somewhere between persistent, tiresome, and I suppose foolhardy, is where you’ll find me. 

I never thought I’d still be at it well into 2019.  But the fossil fuel industry, with all its wretched dark money, is still calling the shots here in Congress while the rest of corporate America still sits on its hands.  The United States Senate still is not seriously considering any legislation to reduce carbon pollution.  And I’m still frustrated.

But I’m optimistic.  The denial wall is cracking.  Bankers and asset managers and financial titans recognize the massive economic risks of a fossil fuel-based economy, and see the huge economic opportunities in a low-carbon economy.  They now see real business incentive to push back on the fossil fuel denial apparatus.

I’m also optimistic because people are talking about climate again; colleagues, Americans, voters, especially young people.  Any politician who wants a long career had better care about what young people think.  Any party that wants to matter in a decade had better care.

Over in the House, a few Republicans have actually introduced legislation to put a price on carbon emissions.  Even President Trump, who handed the keys to his administration over to the fossil fuel industry, feels the need now to talk about the environment.  As empty as that talk is, the pressure he feels is progress.

As for me, I can’t wait to stop giving these speeches.  These speeches chronicle the continued failure of this body – of our country – to grapple with an evident climate crisis.  And these speeches chronicle the fake science and political mischief and muscle that the fossil fuel industry has used to debauch our American democracy.  Marking that history is important, but I want it to be history.  When the dark days of denial are past, these speeches will no longer be necessary. 

I’d like to thank my colleagues from Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon, and Massachusetts for joining me today.  They are great partners. 

As more and more Americans, from kitchen tables to corporate cocktail parties, come to terms with the scope of the problem and the danger that failure presents, I hope my colleagues across the aisle will soon also become great partners. 

Until then, I will conclude for the 250th time by saying, it’s time to wake up.